Monday, October 18, 2010

NBC Sitcom Roundup — "Sex Ed," "Live Show," & "Basic Rocket Science"

The Office, Season 7 Episode 4 — "Sex Ed"

This newest Office was split down the middle, with an A-plot that I enjoyed a lot and a B-plot that, despite a few funny moments, ultimately fell flat. Starting with the good, it was a great idea both comedically and for characterization to have Michael revisit all his exes (plus Oscar). Tons of continuity porn, with several offhanded references to scenes going as far back as 2006. The Office is generally episodic enough that hardcores, casuals, and newbies alike can jump in and laugh at any point (personal confession: I first got into the show watching season two episodes completely out of order on an iPod), but "Sex Ed" would probably be nonsense to an Office virgin. And that's fine by me — I like my shows with strong continuity.

Michael's visit to Carol wasn't spectacular, but that's not a huge shock because the most notable thing about Carol was always just that the actress is married to Steve Carell. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of casual viewers didn't even remember her. The visits to Jan and Helene were more interesting in the way that they showed how wrong Michael and these women always were together, plus, as antagonistic as Jan was during her time as a regular, it was nice to see her somewhat less pathetic than the way we left her a couple seasons back, especially seeing as this is probably her final appearance.

But what this episode did best is show how the chemistry between Michael and Holly remains electric years later, even over a phone conversation where we don't even see Amy Ryan. One thing The Office accomplishes that most other sitcoms and dramas alike fail miserably at is the way it actually convinces me that Holly is The One for Michael. I don't know if it's more the writing or more Amy Ryan but I've loved Holly from her very first episode and it's very easy to understand why Michael can't get over her. I hope she ties into Michael's departure in an interesting but not incredibly predictable way.

The B-plot, with Andy holding the sex ed seminar, wasn't as successful. Like I said, I definitely laughed at a few specific moments (Andy: "What? Is it because he's black?" Jim: "No, it's because it's genitalia."), but it spiraled into a groanworthy anticlimax when the entire seminar was revealed to be a ploy to find out whether Erin and Gabe were sleeping together. The Office, I know it's painful to hear this, but Andy and Erin will never be the new Jim and Pam. I'm serious. It just won't happen.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 4 — "Live Show"

I suppose this live show is useful as a tangible example of the nightmare version of 30 Rock that could have been, but that's about where my admiration ends. Look, it was interesting and it was bold, sure. There was an infectious nervous energy to it. I get why Tina Fey was jazzed about the idea. But none of that can change the fact that I just didn't laugh. I hated the way the howling audience threw off the timing, I hated the look of it, and I hated the broad, theatrical humor (like Liz spraying the water in Jonathan's face) that they never would have resorted to in a filmed, edited episode.

Almost every performance suffered for the live conversion. It was impossible to see Liz Lemon through Tina Fey, Kenneth's giggling played less funny and more psychotic, and the less said about Tracy Morgan's glancing at the camera and stepped-on lines the better. Although I frequently give Jenna Maroney shit for being a generally useless character, Jane Krakowski did by far the best job and felt almost indistinguishable from her filmed performances, no doubt thanks to all her theatrical experience. Alec Baldwin was also pretty decent, but the raspy voice and snappy retorts of Jack Donaghy were mostly lost. Matt Damon was a natural, so it's too bad he only had about a minute of screentime.

I'd go on, but there's really nothing to say about this episode's generic forgotten birthday plot and I'd rather just move on and forget about it. Please, 30 Rock, let this be a one-time thing.

Community, Season 2 Episode 4 — "Basic Rocket Science"

The thing about Community is that it's like someone is making a show just for me, with all the shit I like. College comedy, absurdist humor but with a hint of heart, strong continuity and subtle jokes that demand your attention, an amazing ensemble cast, self-aware parody of the entire sitcom medium, and tons of pop culture references. I seem to love this show more and more every week. I'd go so far as to say that, with two weeks left until the return of Friday Night Lights, Community is at this moment not just my favorite sitcom but my favorite show airing on TV, period. I'm really enjoying Boardwalk Empire but my excitement at a new episode just can't seem to compare to the grin on my face after a new Community.

As a spoof of Apollo 13, "Basic Rocket Science" is Community's third full-speed-ahead parody episode, following up on season one's Goodfellas parody "Contemporary American Poultry" and general action movie parody "Modern Warfare." I'm not sure that it fully measured up to those great episodes — the way that the former explored the character of Abed and the the sheer manic genius of the latter is hard to match — but it was nevertheless hilarious. I loved the way it brought Troy to the forefront and I loved Abed taking the place of Apollo 13's Ken Mattingly as the man left behind. I'm not sure I should bother going on, because I'd just be listing tons of punchlines I loved, but needless to say I thought the entire episode was brilliant. I laughed my ass off. That it was the strongest of itself, The Office, and 30 Rock hardly even needs be said; it left them choking on the exhaust of its superiority.

As the season goes on I'd love to see Greendale's rivalry with City College explored further. It makes a great hook, especially now that we have an actor cast as the Dean of City College, and could fuel conflict for plenty of episodes or even whole story arcs if Dean Pelton's fear of Greendale falling to City College came to pass. But speaking of Dean Pelton, my one critique of the episode is that his illicit gas station and rest stop encounters and general perversion are starting to become just a little too much like Arrested Development's Barry Zuckerkorn. Let's keep it original, Community. Some of those gags were pretty damn familiar.

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